Education in the United Kingdom – what should children be aiming for?

skilled-workers graduate

Some of our teenage children and grandchildren will be doing their mock GCSE exams at their school this year and indeed may have already begun them. This is probably the start of the most difficult period of time in their educational life, because it is the kick-off for the first truly important competitive qualification level exams. The results will probably determine where they actually go with their future education and life.

It is also a time when their families are keen to influence their decisions, offer advice and counselling, or try to guide them on the best way forward – now this is quite a difficult task as those who have any experience of teenagers knows (as the oldest English proverb goes – ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’). Many parents’ experience though is that they themselves have lost out in life regarding work because of lack of encouragement, opportunity, or personal drive, so they didn’t end up with the paper qualifications they needed to get the interviews let alone the jobs, which they could have excelled at and earned a good wage – so they don’t want that for their children, do they?

The problem is that education is a minefield for the unwary – even us adults, as it is a never-ending changing environment, isn’t it? These days the UK has lost status in the world’s education rankings, and that tells the story of how our youngsters are falling behind, which will affect their future careers and prospects in this Country, never mind abroad, doesn’t it? While we remain in the EU all those getting qualified in member countries will come here to compete for our jobs using their better qualifications. In Europe, the UK spends the least percent of GDP on higher education, so is it any wonder we are falling behind? Should a young person stay-on at school after sixteen and if so what subjects should they be seeking to study? What are the options after that?

In the UK, each country has its own separate educational system and in England most state-run schools follow the National Curriculum framework for education, and full-time education or training is ‘compulsory’ (but doesn’t have to be in a school as such), these days until 18 years old.

In the Sixth form 16 -18/19 students are looking to get A-level, AS-level, NVQ, or National Diploma type qualifications. Non-school training can be an apprenticeship, which is an ‘on-the-job training’ and study scheme to become skilled and competent in a trade or profession, so can lead to very successful careers (there are a number of entry levels into such training).

After A-level or equivalent, like BTECs, young people can start an Advance (or even a Higher) Apprenticeship, or Further Education at a College, and there is the possibility of fulltime formal Higher Education (Universities, Higher Education Institutes, Colleges and the like) and over forty percent of young people are opting for that nowadays.

Traditional apprenticeships in the craft trades date back five hundred years or more, and used to be a prime choice of ordinary teenagers fifty or so years ago, but that then fell out of favour with employers in the 1980s. There has been a renaissance this century though, with increasing popularity through ‘trailblazer’ employers. In Germany there has been a long-term strong tradition of their school leavers taking-up apprenticeships rather than doing university (only a third choosing the latter, compared to nearly half in the UK), though that seems to be falling off in favour of becoming an undergraduate (possible because the time required has fallen there from five to three years?).

For generations the dream and preferred educational qualification in the UK has been the full-time University degree, which was deemed to lead to a life of riches – like higher levels and more skilled employment, which allows the majority to earn more overall. These days it isn’t quite like that, is it, but is it still the best or a good way to go though? The perceived value of a degree has certainly diminished because places have increased by the many-many thousands, so the numbers going to Uni have increased dramatically over the past few decades (and quality may have dropped) – half graduates end-up working in non-graduate style occupations (but they may well later get a break).

A worrying and troubling statistic comes however regarding our society’s ‘poor minorities’ where only some thirteen per cent of the British white kids in that category go to university, while other such minority groups can achieve three or four times that percentage (as do the ‘richest white’). Our society and the lack of family ambition are letting down such children, isn’t it?

A big issue is that university students have to pay substantial tuition fees these days (like in most other Counties), but this is provided for by an annual loan from the government – so is not really a problem; however it means that they leave Uni with their shiny new degree certificates, but with a legacy of a student loan  so called ‘debt’ of perhaps some fifty thousand pounds (tuition fees and maintenance). This frightens-off many families at the bottom end of the income scale who aren’t used to acquiring debt – which is not surprising when those from non-traditional university backgrounds, tend to be very risk averse? Some other unknowledgeable families even try to save up finds to offset such a situation which is a bad mistake. These days, you can’t get a better deal than a student loan one, as it is the cheapest way of owing money – it’s cheap money, doesn’t affect credit rating, gets written-off after thirty years, and you only pay some contributions back through extra tax IF you are earning a biggish salary in the year (it has been calculated that nearly half of the money borrowed in this way by students will NEVER get paid back and has to be written-off (you never get that through a bank, do you, so it is a mad policy by the government anyway, don’t you think?). If a normal family is able to financially help a child going to university, the best way to do that is to give the money afterwards – towards a flat or house deposit for example (and certainly not while at uni where it will simply go behind the student bar, won’t it?

Despite what some say, parents should not stop wanting their children to go to University, as it is still the best way they can enter the competitive job scene on equal terms with others in the marketplace – for example, those in the police will tell you that if joining now, a degree is a major asset to getting on there as a career.

[If the next generation of Brits is to succeed in the job market, then their future education is key – we have to make sure they fully recognize that now before it is too late, don’t we?].


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